“You know him?”
“Germi? Of course, he is one of the best Cameroonian players ever”
I had been scrolling on my Instagram when a photo of a former soccer player had popped up. It was only moments before that I met a young Cameroonian who had just been granted asylum in the United States.
At this point, I was volunteering my time at a nearby shelter in the Rio Grande Valley. The shelter where he was staying provides humanitarian assistance for families who do not yet have a sponsor and are in need of support. The Sisters that run the shelter assist clients in navigating the legal systems and can help refer them to agencies who can assist them with their asylum application. Fred did not fall in this category. He was alone, been given asylum, and was on his way to meet his sponsor to start his new life. I would later learn what he had to go through to obtain this status, but nonetheless, at this time, he was relieved, despite everything he had endured. Because it was already late and he didn’t have enough to get him a ticket to the nearest bus station, I offered him to stay at my place. That way he could wait comfortably until his friend was able to reserve his ticket on his behalf. Without hesitation, he agreed, and we drove to McAllen, Texas.
While driving, he was telling me about his trip, and how he had been traveling for nearly 6 months and crossed through eleven countries. I told him about the work I did and the many migrants I had met who had fled their home countries because of oppression from their government. Fred told me how he used to be a gym teacher in his native country of Cameroon, and quickly educated me about how Cameroon is made up of 10 regions, 8 of which are francophone, and heavily dominate the minority anglophone regions. He told me how he had been imprisoned for being actively participant in one of the political groups that were opposing the government. He stated that he could have still been imprisoned to this day if it was not for some rebels that had attacked the prison which gave him the opportunity to escape. Unscathed, he knew he had to act fast, and fled to his neighboring country, Nigeria, where he stayed in hiding. My arrogance quickly got ahead of me, so I asked why he did not simply stay there. He told me that Nigeria is working closely with Cameroon authorities to capture leaders who have been part of the political party he had worked with. Those who were in exile were being returned back to Cameroon. It would not have been long before he was caught, again. He then flew into Ecuador. With the money he had in his bank account, he decided to embark on what would be a long and arduous journey. He told me that he never expected in his life to live in the U.S.; he had only come to South America and was told that the safest place was further north.
I shouldn’t have been surprised, but I was in awe when he told me about all the horrific images he had witnessed. All the dead people he had encountered, specifically a woman who had passed away due to inadequate support for her and her baby. Fred told me about the corruption at some of the detention centers, and the racism from Mexican authorities who would refuse to speak with him because he did not know Spanish. He also spoke about the jungle, or El Darien, which is a stretch of land between Colombia and Panama where there’s nothing but dense jungle. When he finally made it to the U.S., he told me that he had been at Gateway International Bridge in Matamoros, before he was allowed to pass through and begin his asylum application. He told me about the inhumane conditions that he was bound to, and the treatment he received in la Hielera, or the “Icebox,” where he spent two days. I have heard about why these conditions are the way they are, how they are formed as a way to break migrants, mentally, to deter them from continuing their journey. Fred didn’t cave, he continued and awaited his hearing at the detention center before he was finally released.
It’s amazing how some documents can literally be the difference for one person and between life and death. For Fred, he told me he had been abducted and was released only because all his money had already been stolen beforehand. Whether it is corrupt government officials, or “secuestadores,” it seems like everyone wants a piece of the pie and will do anything to take advantage of a situation. Nevertheless, on the other side of detention there are people with hearts of gold who are willing to do good by providing all sorts of help for people who have traveled thousands of miles to seek asylum. In fact, according to the IRC, Central American families are walking at least 1,4000 miles to safety. One of the groups I volunteered with, Angry Tías y Abuelas, provided him with forms that offered information on agencies that could serve him when he arrived to his destination. We explained to him his bus itinerary, guiding him through the convoluted bus changes he would have to make before arriving at his destination. His first stop was ironically back to Brownsville, Texas, where volunteers of #TeamBrownsville had already left a stringy backpack with snacks and two sweaters for his journey ahead. Fred was extremely gracious and told me he couldn’t think of a way to repay me for all I had done. In my mind it was I that should be thanking him, for sharing his story with me, confiding in a stranger who he had only met a day ago. I shared my contact information with him, knowing he would let me know when he reached his destination.
As I look back, I remember sitting at the McAllen bus station alongside Fred as we awaited his first bus. There were other volunteers with whom he decided to share his story; when one of them asked if he was happy, he could only muster a slight grin with a nonchalant shrug. His attitude remained the same: fixated on getting his family to the States. To me, it almost seemed like acquiring the asylum status was the easy part; now he had to work on bringing his family here. Never mind the fact that he doesn’t have working papers to obtain a sustainable job, his mission remains clear and he’ll have to learn how to navigate through the convoluting and bureaucratic systems of the immigration system. While his family continue to relocate from one hiding place to another, Fred faces uncertainty, not knowing how things will turn out. Thankfully, there are still resettlement agencies that continue to serve clients who are in similar positions as Fred, that will aim at providing legal services as well as helping him find employment. However the administration decides to play out its narrative going forward, Fred still has to gather his bearings, and think of next steps that will put him in a position where he can support his family.
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